PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — Who is Joni Ernst?
According to media reports, she’s a “Harley-riding, pistol-packing,” “hog-castrating” farmer, Iraq veteran, and “magnetic mom” who projects “authenticity” and a “just-folks personality;” who “burst from relative obscurity”—indeed, “literally came out of nowhere”—and won Iowa’s Republican Senate primary against a millionaire self-funder; and who is now running even in general-election polling against another deep-pocketed opponent, a trial lawyer and four-term congressman who stands accused of sexism and elitism.
Ernst may be all those things. She’s also something else that has been largely overlooked in the media narrative about her scrappy-underdog status: the beneficiary of more than $1 million in spending from outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Stories from The Associated Press, The Des Moines Register, KCRG-TV, and the Sioux City Journal about Ernst’s June 3 primary win all prominently noted the big spending by her main GOP rival, Mark Jacobs, who put an Iowa-record $3 million of his own money into the race, but did not mention the big spending that was made on Ernst’s behalf by outside groups to help her level the playing field. Neither did a Register editorial on June 14, which cited Ernst’s victory as evidence that “‘big money’ isn’t getting much for those campaign donations.” Another story from the Register in the wake of the primary did mention the role of outside spending in its closing grafs.
In fairness, the bulk of the outside spending for Ernst was a late development in the primary. But by the end of May, it was no secret.
On May 25, the Register’s Jennifer Jacobs signaled that a “cavalry” of outside spending was coming to aid Ernst, mentioning Sen. Marco Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC and the names of some other groups.
On May 29, Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times reported that outside groups were spending $700,000 to boost Ernst in the final weeks of the primary—“a figure that far exceeds what she is spending herself in the closing days of the race.” Tibbetts also identified many of the groups, and their backers, by name: Along with the US Chamber of Commerce and Rubio’s PAC, there was the American Heartland PAC, funded by New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer, and Senate Conservatives Action, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint. Tibbetts also noted that on the Democratic side, Senate Majority PAC, linked to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was pumping money into the race on behalf of Ernst’s general election opponent, Bruce Braley. This week, the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups also joined the fray, and the Center for Responsive Politics now counts nearly $1 million in outside spending opposing Ernst.
When I contacted him for this story, Tibbetts was quick to downplay his own efforts and credit his fellow Iowa reporters. He praised the Register’s Jacobs for her May 25 piece. But among the Iowa reporters whose coverage I’ve reviewed, Tibbetts has been most dogged about tracking the role of outside groups—and most insistent about trying to “name names” of those outside spenders.
When he couldn’t find out much about an organization, as in early reports on groups known as Trees of Liberty and American Heartland PAC, Tibbetts took the time to write about what he wasn’t finding. (One of his articles was linked by The New York Times’ Derek Willis to illustrate the difficulty in timely tracking of the sources outside spending, given lax disclosure requirements.) He also kept at it. In the case of American Heartland, FEC disclosures eventually allowed Tibbetts to identify the group’s primary backer as New York City hedge fund exec Robert Mercer (rather ironic, given that the super PAC’s advertising slammed Mark Jacobs for being a “Texas millionaire”).
Once he had identified Mercer, Tibbetts made sure to identify him again in subsequent stories when the PAC was mentioned—his practice is to identify the source of political cash, not just the groups spending it, whenever possible.
“Iowans deserve to know who they are,” he told me, “and that’s why I write about it.”
Still, Tibbetts said, the story remains incomplete.
“I think that myself and all of us probably could do more to explain why these groups are spending what they’re spending,” he said. When he tried to uncover Mercer’s motivation, he said, “I just couldn’t find that out.”
It’s not an academic question. Based on what we do know about the late surge in outside support for Ernst, at least a good chunk of it can probably be understood as “party money.” Her primary campaign really had been a surprising success, but given her limited fundraising a victory wasn’t assured, and different factions of the national Republican Party—impressively from her perspective, both tea party-aligned and more “establishment” groups—jumped in to get on the bandwagon, consolidate her new front-runner status, and push her across the finish line.
Even that is a story that complicates the picture of a down-home underdog who connected with Iowa voters to overcome big money. But it would be helpful to know if that story’s correct, whether it is the whole story, and where some of those earlier-arriving outside spenders fit in.
Campaign-finance disclosure laws generally aren’t much help to journalists here. Trees of Liberty is a 501(c)(4) group, meaning it never has to disclose its funders.
So is Americans for Prosperity, which is widely known to be backed by the Koch brothers, and which, almost inevitably, was involved in Iowa—though its involvement isn’t reflected in the numbers cited above. AFP has gone on the air with “issue ads” against Braley and other Democratic Senate hopefuls across the country throughout this election cycle. The group has avoided disclosure requirements because of the type and timing of its ads; the group’s ads haven’t expressly advocated voting against Braley (they just rake him over the coals for various issue positions), and they haven’t come within 30 days of the primary or 60 days of the general.
“Americans for Prosperity spent tens of millions before they had to report anything,” Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics told me. “How do you track that?”
Reporters have to look to media buyers, partisan campaign money trackers, the FCC’s useful (but spotty) TV ad-buy database, the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth (which mines the incomplete FCC data but is more easily searchable) or releases from the groups themselves for whatever information they can get. One such group, the conservative Priorities for Iowa, helpfully offered the information that it spent $250,000 on anti-Mark Jacobs spots in March.
Reporters are right to resist framing Ernst the way the Braley campaign would have it; if Ernst has to answer for the Kochs, then Braley has to answer for Reid and his Senate Majority PAC, which has spent more than $1 million on his behalf. But all the significant outside players—the Kochs, Reid, Mercer, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, etc.—should be named in stories about the money race and the ad wars. And whenever possible, coverage should explain whether these figures are part of the informal party apparatus, or truly independent players.
And there should be a lot of those stories across the country this year, about both liberal and conservative groups. Iowa isn’t even in the top 10 when it comes to outside expenditures in Senate races this year, CRP’s Novak told me, and outside spending on campaigns nationwide is more than three times what it was at this point in the 2010 campaign.
“It’s unprecedented for a midterm cycle,” she said.
Is all this detail too arcane to interest a general, outside-the-Beltway readership? Not according to Tibbetts.
“I think people are interested when they see an ad that comes on TV and they see a name of a group they don’t know,” he said. “I think people do want to know who they are.”
Of course, there’s a place for hogs, guns, and gaffes in political coverage, so long as it’s done with smarts. Also important, of course, are Ernst’s merits as a candidate and potential senator; the appeal of her personality, biography, and historic significance (she would be the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa); and the policy issues at stake in her contest with Braley. And every reporter’s mileage may vary on how to depict these outside groups and their spending: Are they “shadowy” and corrupting, or are they necessary equalizers against wealthy self-funders like Mark Jacobs?
Either way, they are not a sideshow. In the 2014 campaign landscape, they are at the center of the action—whether the media narrative places them there or not.